Maggie’s Animal Life

On Wednesday evening I found myself trudging home late at night through the kind of incessant downpour you feel is never going to end. Rain that infuses every part of you, seeping up your trousers, down your sleeves and occasionally washing over you as a car drives past too quickly. My thoughts turned to a marvelously funny, insightful and poignant novel I read recently called The Flood, by Maggie Gee.

Set in the City, where it’s always raining, flood waters are steadily on the rise. Battered boats rescued from scrapyards serve as makeshift buses for the tower blocks, around which the waters are rumoured to have been diverted from the city centre. In that centre, the wealthy are ferried to the opera in gondolas. While all the inhabitants of the city are struggling not to drown in their various problems, their President Bliss tries to deflect attention to far away, pursuing a Blair-like war against the unfortunate inhabitants of a  poor distant country. Neither his cabinet nor the general population has any enthusiasm for the crusade, but somehow Bliss is able to continue with the war (for the sake of peace, naturally).

As well as the rain, I was thinking of this particular novel because I was travelling home from the launch of Maggie’s latest book,  My Animal Life. I’m not sure the Al Saqi bookshop on Westbourne Grove has ever been so crowded. Three of us were there because we’d all had the privilege of meeting Maggie a year earlier, and sharing a writing month with her at Hawthornden Castle as the finishing touches were put to this memoir (I was beginning Johnny Mackintosh: Battle for Earth). It’s a wonderful thing to see a physical book when you were also able to watch it in the late stages of development in the womb. It’s also great to meet fellow writers and on the night I chatted with several I’d not met before.

Maggie spent a little time in conversation with Colin Grant, another author as well as BBC World Service Broadcaster, talking particularly about the candour of her new book, and what had led her to write about herself rather than her characters. Maggie’s a very deep thinker. She puts a lot of science in her books, she’s often tackled difficult themes (check out The White Family), and she comes across as very honest and full of love. While Colin asked her about “sex”, she ended their conversation saying the greatest taboo in writing is “love”. As the place was bursting at the seams, concerned for her audience, it wasn’t long before she stood to read to us from My Animal Life.

I had a very religious upbringing and, although I know now that we’re from all the same stuff as the other creatures on the planet, I still often think of people as separate from animals. That’s strange because my philosophy is very anti the rationalist/logical school that’s dominated so much of our thinking since the Greeks. Intellectually, I believe we’re social creatures, rarely motivated by logic precisely because of our animal nature (if you force me to argue rationally). There’s nothing dirty or disappointing about calling ourselves “animals” – it’s what we are and we should embrace that. Maggie certainly does that, but it doesn’t stop her wondering about some of the great mysteries of life. Some questions she opens the new book with, saying she wants to explore, are:

“Can I save my belief in the the soul from my love of science?

Why do we need art? Why are we driven to make it?

How do we forgive ourselves? And our parents?”

I know the book’s going to be wise, funny, honest and interesting. I’m sure there’ll be something in it for writers everywhere. But I know I’m lucky to have met Maggie and I’ve benefited from spending time with he, so I’d urge everyone to do the same by reading her new memoir.

~ by keithmansfield on March 27, 2010.

One Response to “Maggie’s Animal Life”

  1. Hello, from a writer who sadly couldn’t get to the launch. I have read the memoir. It is superb stuff, warm, generous, raw, funny, poignant, wise, disturbing, challenging – and wonderful writing to boot. We’re richer for it.

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